This article was updated at 10:11 am on Friday, November 9.
In stark juxtaposition with the boisterous political process we have recently witnessed in the United States is the choreographed 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which opened in Beijing this morning. During this weeklong meeting, the single party state will undergo its once-in-a-decade political transition, with President Hu Jintao handing the Party’s reigns to Vice President Xi Jinping.
Colloquially known as the “Eighteenth Big,” or “shiba da,” this is the first Communist Party Congress to be taking place in the age of Weibo, China’s three year-old Twitter equivalent, which has around 300 million users. Chinese social media commentators, however, are up against a much more foreboding foe than that which unnerved some of their American counterparts in the lead-up to election night: instead of the prospect of a great white fail whale, they are confronted with the reality of a Great Firewall.
According to blogger Zhang Lifan, who has a Weibo following of 200,000, the social network is a “credibility enfeebler” for the Chinese government. “Until 2009, there were millions of Internet users but they couldn't comment directly on specific, individual issues. Information was spread from top to bottom and monopolised by the propaganda machine,” he said, according to Leo Lewis of The Times (UK).
That has changed since the advent of China’s very own self-cleaning oven. “The idea that the country has a unified ideology has fallen to Weibo and its ability to debunk things on the spot. Nobody can bluff any more, because it’s too easy for the collective intelligence of Weibo to find it out,” the blogger continued.
However, the Chinese government strives to keep Weibo under firm control. According to Lewis, experts believe that China’s leaders monitor the country’s microblogs at 9 pm every evening to take the nation’s “cyber pulse.” As part of their effort to keep the conversation under wraps, the government censors discussion about high-ranking political leaders, and blocks terms that are deemed risky, such as the three “taboo T’s” – Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen, according to Reuters.
On the subject of the leadership transition, netizens have been “muted,” and talk on Sina Weibo—the country’s largest Weibo operator—has been “patchy,” the BBC has reported. It adds that there has been no special page for the Congress, even though there was one for the U.S. elections, and that a search for “18th Party Congress” only delivers results from state media, and none from individuals, suggesting that the term has been censored.
China’s netizens are wise to these tricks, and circumvent censors using codes. For example, “si ba da,” meaning “Sparta” in Mandarin, is used as a substitute for the Congress’s previous nickname, “shiba da,” which has been blocked, according to Reuters.
But banned words are not the only obstacle in the path of cyber commentators. "My Internet speed is becoming slower and slower, is this because of the approaching 'sparta' or is it the end of the world," Reuters quotes one Weibo user as having wondered. It adds that experts confirm that it is common for Beijing to monitor the Internet more closely before major political events, and that this can indeed cause slowness.
On Twitter, too, China-watchers have been experiencing difficulties with their accounts. "Wow, my Twitter account just got hacked. Party Congresses are such fun," posted Patrick Chovanec, a business professor at Tsinghua University, today-- and he is not alone. the Hong Kong-based China Media Project also received a notification that others had tried to access its account. While there is no evidence linking foul play on Twitter to the government, many are suspicious. As The Next Web's Josh Ong puts it, "where there’s smoke, there’s fire."
Still, one "high-level Chinese Internet executive," whom Reuters quoted anonymously due to the sensitivity of the subject, asserts that "social media cannot be said to be 'tightly controlled,' calling it "infinitely more open than the Internet, which is infinitely more open than print media." The source then qualifies: "'Tightly controlled' may be used only if you are comparing against democratic countries."
Regardless of the level of control asserted by the government, it appears that resourceful Weibo users will find ways to post commentary on the Congress as it unfolds. Meanwhile, Obama needn’t worry; chances seem slim that Ji Hinping will attempt to challenge the most-retweeted record set by the American First Couple’s presidential embrace.
Image courtesy of Remko Tanis via Flickr Creative Commons